Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. Global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year over year to reach $295 billion.
Today’s consumers now spend more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated over $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps to try, too.
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Elon Musk tries to take over Twitter. Maybe.
Last week, Elon Musk bought a huge stake in Twitter (~$3B worth) and was joining Twitter’s board. And then he wasn’t. Now he wants to buy the entire company. Or maybe not.
In his offer letter, he said Twitter has to be “transformed as a private company.” If Twitter refuses his bid — which Twitter is trying to do — Musk warned he would “need to reconsider” his position as a Twitter shareholder. Who knows, maybe that was the plan all along?! He then went onstage at a TED event to tell the audience that, well: “I am not sure that I will actually be able to acquire it.”
No, way, really? Musk’s $54.20 per share offer — get it? 420? WEED! — was a joke? Who could have guessed it?
Musk is playing with Twitter as if it’s a toy, either as a pump and dump for a little needed cash (the dump part’s pending…as of the time of writing on Friday), or to give himself a few minutes of attention where he can loudly proclaim things like: “Twitter has become kind of a de facto town square, so it’s really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” Or because he liked to briefly envision himself as Twitter’s new king. Or because he got bored. Or all of the above.
Okay, sure, whatever. It’s all been a ridiculous circus and one that’s not helping a company that’s finally getting on the right track in terms of product development efforts, amid a transitional period where it was going to be able to redefine itself under a new CEO following Jack Dorsey’s departure.
Musk wouldn’t have much time to devote to actually running Twitter, if he bought it, given his leadership positions as the chief exec at both SpaceX and Telsa. Mostly, he seems to want to throw his money around so that Twitter has to listen to his ideas: how about ad-free Twitter Blue?, instant verification for Blue subscribers? and, of course, how about turning down those pesky content moderation dials? Like way, way down? If successful on the latter point, Twitter wouldn’t be improved — it would be chaos. Or worse, Parler.
But in the wake of Musk’s lowball offer, Twitter’s future — regardless of whether he himself buys it — is no longer certain.
Tim Cook speaks out against sideloading…again
Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage this week at IAPP’s Global Privacy Summit to once again call out companies whose business model is built on mining users’ data — a not-so-subtle reference to Facebook, whose ability to serve personalized ads was impacted by Apple’s App Store privacy changes to the tune of $10 billion. The exec also reiterated Apple’s position against sideloading — the practice of loading apps onto mobile devices from outside the App Store.
Although Google has long allowed its users to install Android apps outside the Play Store, Apple has staunchly resisted the idea, saying it puts users’ privacy and security at risk from bad actors.
The company last year published a 31-page document explaining why it believes sideloading apps could lead to an increase in malware and scams, which would outweigh the consumer benefits of alternative app stores where fees may be reduced as developers could avoid paying Apple’s commissions. Apple critics, of course, believe the company’s position is more about its desire to maintain its tight grip on the mobile app ecosystem and its accompanying App Store revenues. Fortnite maker Epic Games, for instance, is appealing a lower court’s ruling over the App Store business model’s anti-competitive nature. The gaming company wants to serve its mobile games to users outside the App Store to avoid paying Apple commissions, but Apple insists that opening up the iPhone to third-party stores or web downloads is a slippery slope.
Apple proponents often agree that there are risks involved with sideloading, as Apple states. For instance, Apple’s documentation pointed out that Android devices were found to have 15-47x more malware infections than iPhones over the past four years, citing data from Nokia’s prior Threat Intelligence Reports.
But bills that would permit sideloading are gaining bipartisan support in the U.S., which Cook specifically spoke about today, saying they “could put our privacy and security at risk,” and were of deep concern to Apple. Notably, he didn’t only focus on how sideloading could increase the risks of malware, but also on how companies could use the feature to route around Apple’s existing privacy protection to once again track users’ data.
“To be clear, Apple is in favor of privacy regulation. We have long been supporters of the GDPR and we applaud the many countries that have enacted privacy laws of their own. We also continue to call for a strong comprehensive privacy law in the United States. And we are grateful to all the global leaders who are working to advance privacy rights, including the rights of children in particular,” Cook said.
“But we are deeply concerned about regulations that would undermine privacy and security in service of some other aim. Here in Washington and elsewhere, policymakers are taking steps, in the name of competition, that would force Apple to let apps onto iPhone that circumvent the App Store through a process called sideloading. That means data-hungry companies would be able to avoid our privacy rules, and once again track our users against their will,” he added.
Cook also pointed to how sideloading enabled users to be infected with ransomware during the pandemic after being tricked into installing illegitimate COVID-tracing apps. The scheme, he said, “directly targeted those who could install apps from websites that lack the App Store’s defenses.”
Given how many scammy apps slip through the cracks of the “App Store’s defenses” these days, a world where there’s no moderation at all could, in fact, be worse. The real question is whether or not individuals should have the right to take on that risk for themselves.
Elsewhere in the speech, Cook raised concerns about companies that data-mine users for profit. Though tech rivals like Google and Facebook were not mentioned by name in the speech, they were clearly the intended targets of some of Cook’s remarks. At one point, he alluded to companies tracking user data as an “emergency.”
“At this very moment, companies are mining data about the details of our lives. The shops and restaurants we frequent. The causes we support. The websites we choose to read. These companies defend their actions as pure of intention, as the work of better serving us with more targeted experiences,” said Cook. “But they don’t believe we should have a real choice in the matter. They don’t believe that they should need our permission to peer so deeply into our personal lives.”
To illustrate the problem, Cook painted a dramatic picture of what this would look like if it took place in the physical world, calling it an “emergency.”
“Imagine a stranger following you as you take your child to school, holding a camera outside the driver’s side window, recording everything you do. Imagine you open your computer and the stranger is suddenly watching your every keystroke. You wouldn’t call that a service. You would call it an emergency. In the digital world, it is one too,” he said.
- Apple updated its iMovie app with new features, Storyboards and Magic Movie. Storyboards offer users pre-made templates for popular types of videos shared on social, with colleagues or with classmates, while Magic Movie instantly creates a video from the clips and photos a user selects, automatically adding transitions, effects and music to the edit.
- Apple’s iOS 16 beta included references in the code that seem to point to the long-rumored Mixed Reality (AR/VR) headset Apple has under development. The beta also points to possible notifications changes, health-tracking features and possibly a new multitasking interface for iPad.
- Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) may have led to $16 billion in revenue losses among big tech companies like Meta, Twitter, Snap and YouTube, a report by Lotame said.
- Google quietly launched its awaited “Switch to Android” mobile app for iOS that helps users transfer their contacts, calendar, photos and videos from their iPhone to a new Android device. The app is not yet discoverable in the App Store.
- Android Auto 7.5 arrived on the Play Store, but the changes this time around appear to be under the hood.
E-commerce & Food Delivery
- Pinterest partnered with the e-commerce platform WooCommerce, allowing its merchants to turn their product catalogs into shoppable Pins.
- Wegmans began offering support for SNAP purchasing through the Instacart grocery app.
- TikTok launched Effect House into open beta. The new AR development platform allows creators to make AR effects that others can use in TikTok videos. The platform offers creation tools, documentation, templates, and the occasional live demo from TikTok engineers.
- Walmart introduced “shoppable” AR content on Snapchat with a new AR lens to inspire users to make recipes with ingredients from home or those they can order from Walmart.
- A portion of Etsy’s sellers went on strike for a week over a 1.5% increase in the site’s transaction fees.
- Investing app Public launched a new “Learn and Earn” hub where users can complete courses related to investing and earn rewards, like a free slice of stock or ETF as a reward for leveling up.
- India’s payments body, the National Payments Corporation of India, approved WhatsApp’s plan to extend its payments service to 60 million additional users in India, to allow WhatsApp Pay to reach up to 100 million in total.
- Robinhood’s trading app added SHIB, SOL, COMP and MATIC to its service, leading Shiba Inu to rally by 35% on the move.
- Coinbase suspended support for UPI payments on its app in India, less than four days after launching the trading service. The National Payments Corporation of India, which oversees UPI, had said that it was not aware of any crypto exchange using UPI payments.
- Coinbase shareholders have filed a class-action lawsuitagainst the company for deceptively positive statements, noting the company had failed to disclose things like the amount of cash it would need to scale and how susceptible to outages it would be.
- TikTok star and musician Bella Poarch’s latest brand deal has her becoming the face of Cash App. The deal has the star modeling Cash App’s clothing line (?!!) and giving away $100,000 in bitcoin.
- Snapchat’s latest feature is able to automatically create Stories for publishers based on the news stories they post online. The feature leverages RSS feeds, and the generated Stories will appear in the app’s Discover section.
- Snapchat also debuted its fifth cohort of Yellow accelerator startups. The eight startups will take up a 13-week residency at Snap’s HQ, and include companies focused on finance, e-commerce, dating, social, AR and more.
- TikTok is testing a private dislike button for comments. The dislike won’t be public and commenters won’t know they’ve been downvoted in this way. But TikTok could use the feature to inform a comment-ranking algorithm in the future.
- Fox News said an account on Trump-backed Truth Social using its name was unauthorized after the site’s CEO had welcomed the news outlet to the social app.
- India’s ban on Chinese apps in the country has allowed TikTok rival Josh to thrive after TikTok itself was blocked. Josh now has more than 150 million MAUs and a $5 billion valuation as of April.
- TikTok is found to be dominated by pro-war content in Russia after its ban on new uploads, per a study examining the impacts of the Russian “fake news” law. TechCrunch also found that Russian state media was continuing to post to TikTok a month after the app blocked new content originating in Russia.
- TikTok users spent a record $874 million on in-app payments from January-March 2022, up 184% year-over-year, per data.ai data (previously App Annie.) The app reached 1.6 billion MAUs by the end of March.
- Pinterest launched its latest version of its API (v5), saying it’s the first time in the company’s history it’s offering a developer-centric open API that any developer can apply to.
- Meta subpoenaed “competitor” Dispo, a social photo-sharing startup, in an attempt to prove it wasn’t a monopoly. Dispo fought the summons, which had seen the tech giant send 36 requests for its internal documents, including metrics, calling Meta’s requests “unduly burdensome, overbroad, vexatious and harassing.”
- WhatsApp introduced Communities — a new, organized group chat feature that includes admin tools, file sharing, emoji reactions, 32-person calls and more, allowing clubs, schools and other private groups to host chats with thousands of users. Only admins can announce to the entire group, but members can chat more freely in sub-group chats. The update could allow the app to compete with other group chat products or even Facebook’s own Groups, to some extent. But WhatsApp clarifies its difference is that chats are more personal — users would see each other’s phone numbers, for example. They may also be networked in the real world, unlike Facebook’s larger interest-based Groups. Communities will initially launch with select testers for feedback, but some of the other features designed for Communities will arrive on WhatsApp for general access sooner.
- Tinder added a “Festival Mode” to its mobile app that allows members to make connections before heading out to a concert or music festival. The feature was launched in partnership with Live Nation and event producers AEG Presents and Superstruct Entertainment.
Streaming & Entertainment
- Spotify rebranded its companion app Spotify Greenroom as Spotify Live and integrated its live audio capabilities directly into its main streaming app, minus the interactive features. Only select creators from Spotify’s originals will be able to go live in the main app. Independent creators will still be able to stream in Spotify Live, however.
- YouTube said it will now make all public videos on its platform eligible to be remixed into YouTube Shorts (short-form video) content unless creators opt out. The one exception to this will be music videos, where licensing issues prevent re-use.
- Clubhouse added a dark mode for your nighttime streaming.
- Artists are criticizing TikTok’s new music distribution service SoundOn, claiming issues with delays and audience reach.
- Plex drops its plan to be a podcast streaming app. The company said it was ending support for streaming podcasts along with web shows to instead focus on its ad-supported video streaming efforts.
- Spotify-owned podcast creation app Anchor rolled out support for 35 more languages.
- Would-be Roblox rival Rec Room, a cross-platform app including VR, reached 3 million monthly active users specifically in VR.
- Amazon launched its first original mobile games since 2015 with the debut of Amazon Kids+ original games, “Super Spy Ryan” and “Do, Re & Mi” based on its popular shows.
- Niantic launched its first original AR game in nearly a decade not tied to another company’s existing intellectual property with the debut of Peridot.
- Mobile game app spending was down 6.3% year-over-year in March 2022, per Sensor Tower data, to reach $7 billion in player spending. The U.S. was the top market with $1.9 billion or 27.4% of spend, followed by China (19.2%), then Japan (19%). The top game was Tencent’s Honor of Kinds, with $272.4 million in spending.
- Square Enix unveiled Kingdom Hearts 4 and a new Kingdom Hearts mobile game, Missing-Link, for iOS and Android, as part of its 20th Anniversary Event.
- Zynga launched FarmVille 3 in Japan, after having first debuted in November 2021 for most other countries.
Health & Fitness
- A free iPad app called Staybl launched to help people with involuntary hand tremors due to conditions like Parkinson’s be able to use the tablet computer.
- Apple is planning to add new features to its Health app this year that will include things like medication reminders, additional sleep tracking and possibly body temperature sensing. Plans to add a blood pressure monitor to Apple Watch were scaled back, however.
Government & Policy
- Apple will face another antitrust charge in the EU related to its music streaming efforts, Reuters reported. Last year, the European Commission accused Apple of anticompetitive behavior by restricting developers to its own in-app payment system and preventing them from informing users of other purchasing options.
Funding and M&A
Welcome Tech, a startup building a “Super App” aimed at immigrants, raised $30 million in funding led by TTV Capital, bringing its total raise to date to $70 million. The funding will bridge the gap between the B and C rounds for the company. The app offers a banking service, including a debit card and a bilingual mobile app.
Fortnite-maker Epic Games raised $2 billion in funding from Sony and Kirkbi, the parent company of the Lego Group, with both companies investing $1 billion each. The deal values the company at $31.5 billion. Epic said the funding will go toward its plans to build out a kid-friendly metaverse in addition to supporting its further growth.
Nigeria-based digital banking app Umba raised $15 million in Series A funding, two years after raising its $2 million seed. The app offers free bank accounts, interbank transfers, peer-to-peer transfers and bill payments.
U.K.-based Wagestream, a startup offering salary advances to employees through an app, raised $60 million in Series C funding led by Smash Capital, along with $115 million in debt. The app targets front-line workers and others paid in hourly wages.
Twitter acquired the mobile engagement platform OpenBack for an undisclosed sum. The deal will help Twitter to enhance its push notifications via on-device data processing, unlike conventional push notification SDKs.
China-based game engine developers, Cocos Technologies, raised $50 million in Series B funding from CCB Trust, a subsidiary of China Construction Bank, GGV Capital and real-time communication solution provider Agora. Cocos is best known for its cross-platform, open source engine for 2D mobile games.
Voyager Innovations, the owner of Philippines’ payment and financial services app PayMaya and neobank Maya Bank, raised $210 million in new funding. The round was led by SIG Venture Capital, bringing its valuation to $1.4 billion.
Berlin-based Choco, a startup that makes ordering tools for restaurants and suppliers, raised $111M in Series B2 funding at a $1.2B valuation, bringing its funding to $282.5 million. The company offers apps for iOS and Android focused on streamlining ordering for the food industry.
Mental health app Real raised $37 million in Series B funding led by Owl Ventures, bringing its total funding to $53 million. The app offers subscriptions from $13 per month, allowing users to access therapists, therapist-created mental health programs and resources, events and more.
Dating app SwoonMe raised a second round of seed funding in the amount of $1 million from Foxhog Ventures. The company had previously raised $200,000 in its first seed round from angel investors last year after its July launch. The startup claims nearly ~50,000 downloads after launching in India.
Pokémon GO maker Niantic announced the upcoming launch of its latest augmented reality mobile game Peridot. Unlike prior efforts, this game is not based on other companies’ intellectual property, but will instead allow users to care for virtual, magical animals called Peridots. The Dots, as they’re called for short, will be able to distinguish between different types of terrain when viewed in AR and will acquire different types of items based on their surroundings, as well. Players will also be able to breed Dots when they reach adulthood to unlock new types of virtual pets. The new game will soft-launch this month in select test markets on iOS and Android.
You can read more about what the game will bring here on TechCrunch.